Theatre Review: Legally Blonde the Musical

Legally Blonde is an icon among teen chick-flicks. It’s frightfully pink, overly camp and gloriously uplifting. But when it hit cinema screens back in 2001, you hadn’t seen anything yet. A musical soon followed in 2007, not quite winning critics over in Broadway, but was funnily enough a huge success in the West End. And after several local, national, international and touring productions, it has now returned to London. Not in the West End but in the brave venture venue of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Established in the 1930s, the Open Air Theatre is no newbie to the London theatre scene and is open for performances over an 18-week period from late Spring to early Autumn. But of course, when the weather in Britain is one of the world’s most notoriously unpredictable all 52 weeks of the year, it is certainly an intriguing and totally mind-boggling idea to many.

For me, Legally Blonde has been a musical I have wanted to see for many years. I had always wondered, despite good reviews and winning several major awards, just how a film this popular – and seemingly quite niche at the same time – would translate into an all-singing, all-dancing production on stage that captured what made it such a well-loved film and brought originality to make it a must-see spectacle. But of course, with a film so full of hilarious corn and feel-good cheese, it was simply made to be a musical. One that is, to put it quite simply, the gayest and most kitsch musical ever. I mean, there are plenty of contenders for that title, from classics such as The Rocky Horror Show and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to other relative new shows like Kinky Boots and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, but Legally Blonde takes the big, garish pink biscuit.

While I can’t comment much on previous productions of the show, this production at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is surely its most daring and diverse yet. Not only is Elle Woods no longer naturally blonde, she’s also not White nor skinny! Courtney Bowman, who describes herself as Afro-European and made her breakthrough in musical theatre as Anne Boleyn in Six, takes on the coveted role of sorority sister turned “serious” solicitor with a starkly fresher and even more confident take (if you could get more confident than Reese Witherspoon). Furthermore, several other prominent and originally White characters have now allowed for a more diverse range of actors to step into their last season Prada shoes. And that doesn’t just mean ethnically diverse but also across the LGBTQ+ spectrum with one of Elle’s confidants Margot and staunch feminist classmate Enid played by non-binary actors Isaac Hesketh and Alžbeta Matyšáková, respectively. Meanwhile, Elle’s love interest Emmett (now surnamed Forrest to branch out from her name), Warner’s new girlfriend Vivian, her beautician friend Paulette and her other two friends Serena and Pilar (a new addition for the musical to make a “Greek chorus”) are all played by an array of non-White actors.

Courtney Bowman stuns in bright pink as a brand new version of Elle Woods.

And in what is perhaps undeniably the most bizarre twist in the cast is that they don’t use real dogs to play fan favourite Bruiser Woods and Paulette’s Rufus (who was a bulldog in the film but is now for some reason a poodle). This could either be due to a working animal rights issue, the fact it takes place outdoors in all weathers, a combination of both or purely for audience laughs and shocks since they are instead now portrayed by humans in costumes that look like the “sexy” kind some people like to wear for Halloween or as part of a strange sex fetish. Or think of how the actors looked in that critically-panned film version of Cats… Ew.

These casting choices make (I assume) a marked difference in the way the direction this production has headed as it starts reflecting a more diverse society and the multi-faceted experience of students, bringing newer and different perspectives to the characters. While there is no direct reference to race made, it is definitely implied when Emmett – a more rounded and deeper character than his film counterpart – talks about “where we come from” to being lawyers. And the admissions team make a clear comment on the “ethnic moves” Elle and her friends bring to her personal essay to get into Harvard Law School. In addition, songs such as Bend and Snap sound vastly better and more authentic coming from a Black actress portraying Paulette (the funny and brash Nadine Higgin) where the instrumental is rooted in R&B, funk and soul.

The musical itself is also pulled into the modern-day era where CVs no longer need to be pink and scented but can be sent electronically, TikTok dances and Instagram selfies are part of everyday life and where the name-dropping of A-List Hollywood actresses of the film’s time Tori Spelling and Cameron Diaz are no longer considered current and cool enough to be used. They are instead swapped out for Kourtney Kardashian and Timothée Chamalet, the former of which is at odds with Elle trying to convince Warner that Bel Air is not a trashy place to live… As well as that, other classic lines from the film are, to me, controversially reworded, while others are almost exactly the same. Why? I don’t know, but it was often unnecessarily so since it’s not like the original script was inappropriate or offensive.

As with other musicals that have not had the same longevity as others that are more than 20 years old, Legally Blonde‘s musical numbers face the same problem of finding it harder to be considered classics and staples of musical theatre. This is perhaps quite unsurprising when the original Broadway production barely lasted two years and it only lasted just slightly longer in the West End. While many numbers are definitely catchy, poppy, funny and spunky, their catchiness doesn’t always last beyond the theatre once you’ve left if you haven’t already listened to the songs beforehand.

Alongside the aforementioned Bend and Snap, opening pop-rock number Omigod You Guys, Elle’s personal essay What You Want, the Greek chorus’ positively upbeat Positive, Brooke’s workout anthem Whipped into Shape, the operatic-like Gaydar song There! Right There! and the title song Legally Blonde are other highlights that get the audience laughing out loud at or feeling overwhelmed by the amount of peppiness and pinkness parading around the stage. They are unashamedly over-the-top, comedic and flamboyant, that like Elle herself, don’t care as the cast flip their hair. It’s undoubtedly not a musical for those whose eyes and ears are offended by the presence of a dozen shades of one colour all at once and “avant-garde” fashion, cheerleader and pop music video choreography galore (bar the cultural conflation of Irish and Scottish dancing) and almost caricature-like acting that is so often employed to portray stereotypical air-headed American sorority girls. But obviously, nobody not expecting that kind of campness overload would surely dare go and watch it, just as no-one would surely dare wear paisley?

The cast delightfully revel in the fact that the musical they are starring in is so glaringly gaudy and tongue-in-cheek, yet so punchy and joyful whilst maintaining the themes of being true to oneself and flipping first impressions on their head that the film was all about at its fluffy pink heart. Courtney Bowman as Elle commands the stage and lights it up as a version of Elle that is definitely not what you think when you hear the words “Malibu Barbie”, taking the character of MiZZ Woods (who is just as iconic as Anne Boleyn, let’s be honest) to a whole new level of “zero fucks given” and “don’t try me” attitude. Nadine Higgin also elevates Jennifer Coolidge’s version (and probably every other version) of Paulette from meek, dumb and frumpy to sassy, assured and fearless (except when it comes to her ex-parter Dewey and UPS guy Kyle) that is only further boosted after Bend and Snap.

L to R: Isaac Hesketh as Margot, Nadine Higgin as Paulette, Grace Mouat as Pilar and Hannah Yun Chamberlain as Serena.

Hannah Yun Chamberlain as one of third of Elle’s Greek chorus Serena exudes great star quality, even in a supporting role, and happening to be of East Asian descent is an added bonus for representation in musical theatre. On the other hand, although Isaac Hesketh’s casting as Margot is of course groundbreaking, their performance was a jarring contrast to Chamberlain and Grace Mouat’s Pilar as they sounded croaky and off-key whilst singing more often than not.

Legally Blonde the Musical is bright, bubbly and a perfect escape from the soberness and drama of the real world as you are thrown into a pink, hyped up wonderland of law that every serious lawyer either recoils from in disgust, dreams it was that easy to nail a suspect, or even get a foot in the door of the legal sector that easily. As long as you’re prepared for it being louder, pinker and queerer than both Legally Blonde films put together ad infinitum (that’s me being comfortable using legal jargon in everyday life!), you’re all set for one of the funniest and most joyous musicals of recent times. And as I said, the gayest and most kitsch of all time.

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre still goes ahead with its performances regardless of Britain’s undependable weather conditions (unless it is, I assume, thundering with rain or exceedingly windy). Performances will carry on in the rain but can be halted for crew to dry the stage and wait for the rain to stop – if it does. While this is, as their website says, all part of the open air theatre experience, and of course it is situated in a lovely park area of London, you can’t help but wonder why it was ever thought to be an idea suitable for a climate that has the hottest day of the year so far one day, then is ten degrees cooler, windier and has an almost 100% chance of rain the next… Still, rain did nothing to dampen the spirits of the audience or cast – who must be given snaps for their professional ability to stop and start like that if they have to (on top of singing outside). If anything, the camaraderie along with the audience praying it would stop for the final ten minutes or at least not get any heavier (especially those who had just had perms in the last 24 hours), continued to lift spirits to end the show on a high even if it was more than half an hour later than planned.

Rating: 🎀👚👛👙/💄 (4/5)

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